In recent times, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been in the news again with the unacceptable and tragic occurrence of another aircraft accident. The high accident rates in commercial aircraft operations in the Democratic People’s Republic of Congo ( DRC) is rather unfortunate but a result of complex and multivariate causes. The historical combination of massive corruption, abysmal political governance and ethnic conflicts post-independence from Belgium to the current unrest in some parts of the DRC affected the political stability and socio-economic development of DRC which is an important bed-rock for aviation development in any country. The most recent World Bank estimates (2018) put the poverty rate in the DRC at 73%, one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa. Extreme poverty is concentrated in the northwestern and Kasai regions. It is important to note that there is a tangible relationship between socio-economic metrics and aviation development which has aviation safety as a sub-variable.
Political Instability, Security Challenges and Management of Obsolete Fleet
The prevailing instability and insecurity in most of the DRC such as the North Kivu and Ituri provinces region hampers any form of aviation development or state safety oversight of existing aviation infrastructure and service provision The perennial lack of control by a centralized government over such a wide swathe of landmass and heightened security issues with rebel activities in greater parts of this country creates an enormous challenge in building, maintaining and sustaining any form of credible aviation infrastructure. Invariably that becomes a latent condition that festers such high aviation accident rate in DRC.
There are some anecdotal evidence that suggests that during the peak of the civil unrest in parts of the DRC (late 1990’s -2007), there were high inflows of aged Soviet-era aircraft to facilitate troop transport, materiel movement, and logistics support for clandestine mining activities by some armed factions in the Eastern and Northern Provinces. Most of these Soviet-era aircraft such as the Antonov 24 and 26 were functionally obsolete (20 years and above) and there was virtually no credible documentation on airworthiness and parts inventory used for servicing. A sizable chunk of these aircraft are still operational in the DRC. Management and regulatory oversight of aged air fleet in the DRC raises serious aviation safety concerns. A recent law in DRC that requires airlines to get both operations license and Air Operator Certificate (AOC) to operate may be helpful to curb some of the regulatory challenges with safety of air operations.
Technical and Human Resource Constraints
Even though International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has removed DRC from the List of countries having Safety Significant Concerns since 2014, there have been challenges with low-levels of technically competent and qualified human resources and required surveillance support systems to ensure an effective safety oversight by the DRC CAA. These technical personnel are required to perform safety oversight functions and require appropriate initial and recurrent training to maintain and enhance their competence at the desired level. These lower numbers of qualified safety inspectors continue to be an obstacle to an effective safety oversight system. There have been efforts in recent times (2016) through the efforts of the African Development Bank (ADB) to train more safety inspectors in all air safety oversight domains but there are still room for improvements.
Assessing Aviation Safety Performance in DRC
I must objectively state that there is more to assessing the level of aviation safety of a country than just basing it on a singular metric such as number of fatal aviation accidents recorded. Aviation accidents or incidents are termed reactive safety metrics and specifically lagging indicators of safety performance. The Aviation Safety Network statistics from 1945-2019 suggests that there have been more fatal commercial aviation accidents in the United States and Russian Federation than in the DRC, but looking at the scope of flight operations ( number of flight movements) in those countries brings out the context. Fatal commercial aviation accidents per million movements suggest that DRC has a higher accident rate.
The ICAO Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme (USOAP) Continuous Monitoring Approach (CMA) provides a more objective and holistic picture of a country’s aviation safety state. USOAP uses a risk-based approach in assessing and monitoring the effective implementation (EI) of the Critical Elements (CEs) of a safety oversight system. These eight critical elements (CEs) are primary aviation legislation; specific operation regulations ; State system and functions ; qualified technical personnel; technical guidance, tools, provisions of safety-critical information; licensing, certification, authorization and/or approval obligations; surveillance obligations ; and resolution of safety issues.
Normally, eight areas in a country’s aviation sector are assessed to determine an acceptable level of safety performance. Some of these areas are primary aviation legislation and civil aviation regulations (LEG); personnel licensing and training (PEL); aircraft operations (OPS); aircraft accident and incident investigation (AIG); air navigation services (ANS); and aerodromes and ground aids (AGA). The audit assesses how a country has effectively implemented as least one of the 8 critical elements in each of the audit areas highlighted.
In 2006, DRC Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was subjected to the USOAP and its effective implementation rate of ICAO Standards and Recommendation Practices (SARPs) was about 11%. In 2013, ICAO conducted a Coordinated Validation Mission(ICVM) and DRC’s effective implementation (EI) rate of the ICAO SARPs of 26.5% was below the global average of 60%. Crew licensing and certifications have also been an issue in DRC. In the recent ICVM audit (6 - 19 November 2018 ), The DRC was found to be below the global average score of about 75% in terms of EI of the CEs of the USOAP related to Licensing of aviation personnel and services. DRC scored 65.8%.
Aviation Regulatory Framework and Institutional Challenges
In my opinion, there are also serious challenges with appropriate facilities, comprehensive and up-to-date technical guidance material and procedures, safety-critical information, tools and equipment to enable the few technical personnel to perform their safety oversight functions effectively and in accordance with established procedures in a standardized manner. There is also the issue of under-resourcing of the CAA which relies on revenue/charges from services rendered to air operators which are woefully inadequate to sustain effective operations.
Weak institutional and regulatory frame work related to aviation personnel licensing in DRC and potential issues of corruption makes it easy to acquire flight crew or aviation maintenance certificates and operate on an aircraft while not necessary undergoing and meeting requisite proficiency standards. There are also challenges with documented processes and procedures to ensure that organizations providing aviation services meet the established requirements before approval to conduct the relevant aviation operations. This is at variance with the ICAO requirements for entities performing safety oversight functions to be provided with guidance that addresses ethics, personal conduct and the avoidance of actual or perceived conflicts of interest in the performance of official duties.
Political ruffling in the DRC and the absence of a strong nation-wide central executive to enforce effective sanctions for corrupt acts does not help situation. At the lower echelons, the problem seems exacerbated by the extremely poor and irregular payment of government employees’ salaries. That makes it very difficult to recruit, train, sustain and replace personnel with the requisite high technical competence to ensure effective safety oversight of aviation operations in the DRC. The ICAO audit report for 2018 also suggests challenges in the area of primary aviation legislation although comparing it to historical trends a substantial improvement had been made ( 74% score by DRC against a global average of 75%). There has to be an overview of existing legislations to reflect contemporary international standards.
Aviation Accident Investigations
One of the critical areas in terms of aviation safety service oversight in DRC has been aircraft accident investigations. In the recent 2018 ICAO audit, the country scored about 21% compared to the global average of 60% in terms of EI of the CEs related to aircraft accident investigation ( ICAO Annex 13). The rationale of every aircraft accident investigation is to identify active failures and latent conditions that are precursors to an accident and recommend effective corrective actions to prevent future occurrence.
The DRC has the “Bureau Permanent des Enquêtes d’Accidents et Incidents d’Aviation (BPEA)” which is responsible for conducting investigations of all aviation accidents and incidents occurring in DRC. However, this entity is challenged by inadequate qualified and experienced personnel (technical staff and management personnel ) to ensure that investigations of serious incidents are effectively carried out when required by ICAO Annex 13. This limits a thorough, independent investigations of serious incidents and predispose aviation operations in DRC to potential unidentified and unacted upon safety issues. It will be intuitive for the government of the DRC to liaise with African countries such as South Africa and Nigeria with technical and human capabilities in aviation accident investigations to assist in the initial and recurrent training of aviation accident investigators.
Effective investigation of serious incidents is also affected by the lack of immediate reporting or total lack of reporting of serious incidents by air operators and other service providers to the BPEA. It is very difficult to ascertain based on the ICAO audit report if such a reporting system with all the functional components and documented parameters is functional in the DRC. Voluntary safety reporting systems enables the capture of safety issues and hazards which may not otherwise be captured within the mandatory incident reporting system. Effective implementation of a voluntary aviation incident reporting system is a solid foundation for proactive accident prevention in aviation. It however requires proper legislation, procedures and mechanisms to be established within the DRC. It also requires significant efforts by the BPEA to encourage voluntary reporting of near-misses and aviation safety hazards within the DRC aviation community while building trust in a non-punitive reporting system.
Airport and Air Traffic Services
The quality and quantity of air traffic navigation/surveillance and communication facilities and services in the DRC are woefully inadequate and below the global score (36% as compared to 68% global average). Most of the deficiencies in this area are non-calibration of many navaids equipment and lack of radar coverage. There is relatively lower overage of Congolese air space by radio communication and ground-based navigation aids. Aerodrome facilities and services are also rated poor by the audit with a score of about 25% as compared to global average of 63%. These deficiencies are examined within the context of the political and socio-economic challenges in DRC and contribute to the unsatisfactory aviation safety performance index of DRC.
Some of the issues related to airports in DRC are poor conditions of existing runways, lack or insufficiency of Emergency Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting Coverage, lack of day and night ground lighting and lack of maintenance of tarmacs. There have been ongoing efforts at revamping the aviation safety infrastructure sector through facilities from African Development Bank (ADB) ($157.000.000 $ USD) and the World Bank (62.000.000 $ USD) for the rehabilitation of the communication, navigation, surveillance (CNS/ATM) equipment and Goma Airport. Such support if appropriately utilized can improve safety performance and ensure compliance with the SARPs of the various ICAO Annexes.
It is time for other African countries with the technical capabilities and human capital to assist the DRC to assure safety of aviation services. It is also my fervent hope that the government of the DRC will provide the financial resources and political will to leverage the technical and human capital of aviation safety experts from other African countries such as South Africa, Ghana, Cape Verde and Nigeria to assist in building a veritable infrastructure that assures operational safety in the provision of aviation services throughout the DRC.
Daniel Kwasi Adjekum, Ph.D.
Professor of Aviation, University of North Dakota
Author can be reached at [email protected]
Aviation Safety Network : http://aviation-safety.net/statistics/geographical/map/accidentmap.php?country=9Q
ICAO USOAP Audit Website: https://www.icao.int/safety/scripts/USOAP-Results.html
World Bank Country Report : https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/congo/overview
DRC CAA: https://aacrdc.org/WebAAC/index.php